A Hardened heart

By Kolby Paxton

Oklahoma City will begin defense of its Western Conference championship tomorrow when the Thunder returns to the site of its most recent landmark victory, a come-from-behind 107-99 victory over the mighty Spurs.

James Harden contributed 16 points that night, none bigger than his veins-of-ice water three-point dagger with just over two minutes to play. He won’t score any in this one, though. He’s in Atlanta, preparing to play the Hawks, as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean that really got out of hand fast. One moment, Russell Westbrook was squirting mustard on Harden’s beard. The next, Sam Presti was stabbing a collective fan base in the heart with a trident. We knew this day was possible, but no one was braced for impact. Our seats weren’t even in the upright and locked position yet.

The Sixth Man of the Quarter Century was due $5.8 million in 2012-’13, then he would become an unrestricted free agent, at which point his qualifying number was set at $7.6 million. That number was arbitrary. That much was understood. If he made it that far, more than a dozen suitors would likely line up with maximum contracts worth more than twice as much. Harden would sign an offer sheet worth $80 million dollars over five years with a team like the Rockets, and the organization would bid him adieu.

If our bearded gunner was to remain in Thunder blue, Presti & Co. would likely ink him before he ever hit the market. Such was the intention on Saturday, when Oklahoma City offered him four years and a reported $55.5 million – $4.5 million under the maximum. Harden was given an hour to decide, balked, and was swapped for pieces.

It wasn’t totally delusional for the Thunder and its fans to expect Harden to play for a discount. After all, both Durant and Westbrook could have made more on the open market, but sacrificed – albeit, to very limited degrees – in order to stay in Oklahoma City. Since last season ended, Harden repeatedly insisted that he wanted to be in Bricktown, that he wanted to stick with this group, on this journey.

Moreover, inking The Beard to a max contract would have tied the Thunder to $65 million in annual salary, leaving an average of just $500k per player with which to fill the remaining 10 roster spots, while remaining below the $70.3 million luxury tax threshold – otherwise known as $1.5 million less than the average wage for current players not named Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Perkins/Martin.

The same level of reserve spending, in addition to $15 million per year for Harden, would have put the Thunder more than $10 million over the projected luxury tax threshold for 2013-’14 – which would cost Oklahoma City over $25 million in cap penalties next season, and $35 million in each season there after. In that respect, moving Harden for a shooter with an expiring contract, a lottery pick and future picks was a shrewd move from the NBA’s shrewdest GM.

Unless, of course, you consider the fact that the $4.5 million difference could have been more than compensated for by simply exercising the amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins’ inflated contract.

I must admit, I feel better after seeing this photo, knowing that we apparently have some sort of X-Man playing power forward.

Yes, basketball season started Tuesday and I am already complaining about the lethargic, over-paid, fake-tough guy once again. Perk is due $9.1 million next season. Subtract $9.1 million from $80 million, sign Kwame Brown for one-third the cost of Perkins, and you’re $4 million over the tax in a worst case scenario – with virtually the same guy playing center, minus the awkward chin-fuzz. Suddenly, that $35 million donation to David Stern’s retirement fund is down to $10 million per. Easily manageable for a franchise that raked in $30-$35 million in revenue during a lockout-shortened 2011-’12 season; a franchise that, according to Forbes, sits on more operating income than any team in the NBA other than the Bulls and Knicks.

Of course, that’s a purely hypothetical situation, but so is the alternate universe in which Perkins actually plays up to his paycheck – or, at this point, the one in which Serge Ibaka transforms into the All-NBA player that he’s being paid like.

I like Serge. He’s freakishly athletic, a consummate teammate, and, by all accounts, a wonderful person. Still, the Thunder had another year of James Harden on the cheap, another crack at the title with all of its pieces in place, and another 100 or so games with which to further evaluate Ibaka.

In the past, a good-to-great offensive outing by Ibaka, one like he turned in during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, was a luxury, a bonus, a pleasant surprise. No more. In dealing Harden a season early, Presti and the Thunder have levied the expectation of offensive contribution upon a player primarily known for his defense. Oklahoma City will need to replace nearly 17 points per game, and much of that must come from a player averaging half of that for his career.

Maybe Ibaka continues to develop, becomes a 15-10-3 guy, and Harden is still deemed disposable. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if Serge is the same player in 2012-’13 that he was in 2011-’12? Wouldn’t you like to have the opportunity to then re-sign Harden, dump Perkins, and swap Ibaka for pieces? We’re talking about a Kevin Martin rental, Jeremy Lamb, and the first round selection of a team that figures to be bad, but not awful.

That was too much to pass up?

Failure to re-sign Joe Johnson left Suns management with a black eye.

The belief that Harden should have signed for less than market may also be a bit misguided. The Thunder already used its two allotted five-year deals with Durant and Westbrook, meaning the most they could offer Harden was four years. By sacrificing a fifth year to stay in Oklahoma City, wasn’t he already making a considerable concession? By agreeing to play third-fiddle despite first-fiddle ability, wasn’t he already compromising for the betterment of the organization?

At the end of the day, it was never really about $4.5 million. For Presti and the Thunder, it was about staying true to a set of central beliefs – most notably, sacrificing me for we. Players like Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Nick Collison each allowed for a franchise-favorable contract structure that allowed Oklahoma City to save itself from cap penalties heading into the new collective bargaining agreement. The expectation for Harden was the same. His reluctance to provide even the slightest of contractual bargains essentially stamped his ticket to Houston. But is individual sacrifice only measured in dollars and cents? On the court, where games are won and lost, did Harden not exemplify the Thunder code of selflessness?

Presti weighed the risk of losing Harden versus losing a brick in the foundation of his negotiating philosophy and favored the latter. In doing so, he made the correct business decision. But, if sports are, in fact, all about winning championships, was it the correct basketball decision?

Seven years ago, the Phoenix Suns, trotting out a young, exciting trio of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, went head-to-head with those mighty Spurs, bowing out of the Western Conference Finals in five games. The following summer, contract negotiations with Johnson, a restricted free agent, turned sour. The Suns were reluctant to offer a maximum deal to Robin’s Robin. Prior to the 2005-’06 season, Phoenix dealt Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and two first round picks. Without Johnson to stretch the floor, the Suns, ever a contender, never realized their championship potential.

Years later, former owner Robert Sarver called the decision not to re-sign Johnson the biggest regret of his tenure.

Here’s hoping a clean shaven Presti doesn’t similarly lament the day he parted ways with Harden.

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The knockout blow

By Kolby Paxton

Here’s a list of things that I did expect on Saturday:

• I did expect Arkansas to cover the spread at home vs. Kentucky.

• I did expect the Sooners to knock off Texas.

• Believe it or not, I did expect Landry Jones to play well. He’s been consistently proficient at the Cotton Bowl – two words that you’d never use to describe the New Mexican in any other scenario.

As for happenings that I did not anticipate? Suffice it to say that I did not expect to witness the end of the Mack Brown era manifest itself in the form of a 63-21 Red River wreck.

Oklahoma was a better team due, in large part, to Mike Stoops’ defensive reckoning. That much, we knew. Still, just three weeks ago, many were digging the Sooners’ grave and singing UT’s praises in the same breath. David Ash was the real deal. Texas was a complete team – you know, as in, it had a defense to accompany its offense. Oklahoma couldn’t move the ball, nor could the Sooners tackle.

Now, it seems, they can do both – quite well, actually, and thanks for asking. Conversely, the question, “What has Brown done for you lately?” has never been so pointed.

Since Colt McCoy’s arm went dead in the 2009 BCS Championship, Brown’s record in Austin is 17-15, 0-3 vs. Oklahoma. Worse than going o’fer Landry Jones, is going o’fer by an average margin of over 40 points per game – a harsh reality of the past two seasons, following Saturday’s meltdown at the Midway.

If not for the goal line fumble that wasn’t, the mighty Longhorns would be 0-3 in the Big 12 during a season in which “experts” like Phil Steele and Athlon Sports ranked Texas as high as No. 7 during the preseason. The offense is bad, the defense is worse, and the UT coaching staff has developed an unwanted – but unavoidable – reputation for failing to develop its constant influx of top shelf talent. That, or we’re really supposed to believe that the University of Texas just can’t seem to find any elite linebackers, wide receivers or quarterbacks. Which makes more sense?

Mack had a nice run, a really nice run, complete with one of the most memorable national championships in the history of collegiate football. Unfortunately, however, the remainder of the 2012 regular season was turned into a swan song by Damien Williams and Kenny Stills, Blake Bell and Trey Millard. There exists too much pride, too many inflated self-images in Austin, to allow Brown to stick around after this one. Significant house cleaning is imminent – but Texas won’t be alone in that endeavor.

Arkansas’ campaign became a series of unimportant scrimmages less than a month into the regular season. The deep pockets residing in the state’s northwest corridor figure to position the Razorbacks at or near the top of the coaching carousel. Elsewhere in the SEC, Derek Dooley is a lame duck in Knoxville, Tenn., and Gene Chizik is who we thought he was in Auburn, Ala. – a considerable plummet for two of the top football programs in the country.

So with Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn headlining the list of schools in pursuit of a new ball coach, I thought it appropriate to outline the top ten potential replacements:

10.) Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State

Is Malzahn still considered an elite coaching candidate – in spite of his wife and a 4-3 start?

Am I biased? Probably. And just to be clear, the obvious omission from this group is one Pete Carroll, who, if interested in returning to the collegiate ranks, should be No. 1 on the list – moving the rest of these gentlemen down a notch and, in the case of Malzahn, off the board. But I doubt Carroll’s desire to go back to school given the season he’s having in Seattle, and with Arkansas and Auburn in play, it’s tough not to connect the dots in the direction of Jonesboro, Ark.

9.) Art Briles, Baylor

Briles has turned the doormat of the Big 12 into a Heisman Trophy producing, perennial bowl squad – an achievement that cannot be overstated. Just a few years ago, a fall wedding in Texas or Oklahoma carried with it two options: Schedule the big day for a bye week, or schedule it for Baylor week. Unfortunately for autumn nuptials, there is now but one option, and it isn’t the Bears.

8.) Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

To appreciate what Mullen has accomplished in Starkville, Miss., you need to understand that a) Mississippi State’s cupcaketitude was matched by only Vanderbilt and Ole Miss prior to his arrival, and b) he has absolutely no chance of ever winning the division, therefore he may not be measured in BCS bowls and conference championship appearances. The Bulldogs are relevant, an adjective that did not describe MSU pre-Mullen, nor post-Mullen.

7.) Dana Holgerson, West Virginia

Admittedly, I’d have likely placed Holgerson a tad higher on the list were it not for witnessing the demolition that ensued in Lubbock on Saturday. Still, Holgerson is as brilliant an offensive master-mind as the game has to offer. Given the recruiting reach afforded to the likes of Texas, Auburn, Tennessee, and even Arkansas, the Red Bull Space Jump would seem to be the limit.

6.) James Franklin, Vanderbilt

Franklin had me at Marc Panu. I understand that the Commodores are just 2-4 this season, but that number figures to improve with a job interview vs. Auburn on tap for this weekend. More importantly, Franklin has managed to ignite an otherwise apathetic football fan base, winning six games in his first season and recruiting far better than the head coach of Vandy should be able.

5.) Charlie Strong, Louisville

Strong is no stranger to this game. He was tossed around as the potential ship corrector at numerous schools – including Arkansas – while the defensive coordinator at Florida. All he’s done since arriving to the ashes of the Steve Kragthorpe-era is resurrect the Cardinals, currently at 6-0 and in the driver’s seat of what used to be the Big East. Strong is an Arkansas-native, and a graduate of Central Arkansas.

4.) Bobby Petrino, Harley Davidson

Say what you will about his obvious character flaws. Odds are, I probably already have. Still, Petrino is a winner. He won at Louisville. He won at Arkansas. He’ll win at Kentucky or Auburn. All John L. Smith & Co. have done, is solidify Petrino’s value as a head coach.

3.) Gary Patterson, TCU

Patterson has transformed the Horned Frogs from Mountain West also-ran, to Big 12 contender. He has shown no fear when it comes to recruiting against the OU’s, UT’s and A&Ms of the world, and there’s no doubt that a school like Arkansas could out-bid TCU for his services. He’s 114-31 in 11 seasons at Texas Christian, and he deploys the smash mouth defensive brand of football that seems to exemplify the SEC.

2.) Chris Petersen, Boise State

At the end of each season, Petersen tops the list of a handful of schools looking to make a coaching change. And at the end of each off-season, he remains the head coach in Boise, Idaho. Maybe he’s the Mark Few of college football. Maybe he never leaves the smurf turf for the greener pastures of bigger programs. Maybe. But what if Texas offered him $5 million a year?

1.) Jon Gruden, ESPN

Gruden is one of the brightest minds, at any level, in the game today. There’s no way you’re convincing me that he’s content to simply retire to the Gruden Quarterback Camp, and hang out with Mike Tirico.

His name continues to come up amid the grumbling in Fayetteville, Ark., where one of the nation’s wealthiest athletic departments could afford to make it worth his while. Unfortunately for Razorback Nation, Gruden has strong ties to the University of Tennessee. He was a graduate assistant in Knoxville, married a Volunteers cheerleader, and seems like an obvious answer to what ails Rocky Top.

A river runs through it

By Kolby Paxton

I must admit, conference expansion has been more palatable than I previously anticipated.

The college football world, as we know it, did not implode. The landscape did not chasm into four lore-less pseudo regionals – nor is such a scenario imminent. The Big 12 did not cease to exist. Instead, the argument can be made, that the league has flourished, in spite of offensive defense.

Admittedly, my oppositional stance was fueled, in large part, by stark traditionalism. Naiveté? Sure, I guess. Resisting change, in any arena, is a futile campaign. The leaves will always turn, a wave of reds and yellows, indifferent to a person’s preference for warmth.

For me, as it pertains to the hallowed sport of football – and, particularly, the collegiate version – warmth can best be described as Switzer vs. Osborne, Aggies and Longhorns on Thanksgiving day, and a Southeastern Conference comprised only of institutions located south of the Mason-Dixon line; all of which were compromised by the pursuit of excess.

But in the dead of winter, the sunshine provides the promise of spring – and with it, the return of a warm breeze from summers past that once seemed so far away. Similarly, multiple reports have recently surfaced that lend optimism with regards to the eventual restoration of Oklahoma-Nebraska, as well as the Lonestar Showdown.

As for the cultural, geographical discernment that led Missouri to the SEC, well, as it turns out, watching an utterly delusional fan base squirm as it is inundated by weekly reality checks offers inherent entertainment value.

Suffice it to say, Middle America’s conference hasn’t missed the Tigers, nor has it missed Pac-12 doormat Colorado. Nebraska fits right in with the Big Ten, and they haven’t been your father’s Cornhuskers since Eric Crouch won the Heisman.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M has adapted favorably to its new league, and visa versa, serving as a natural rival for division-mate, Arkansas, while competing admirably in spite of a relatively inexperienced roster.

In other words, college football is still college football. All is well. But never is the sport so romantic as when the Sooners and Longhorns meet beneath Big Tex.

There is no setting in college football quite like it. Ohio State–Michigan may be bigger, it may not be. But the spectacle of the Red River Rivalry is unmatched. It is the essence of college football at its pinnacle.

Most games are just that – one game. This isn’t that. This is three straight days of crimson versus orange, the invasion of one of our country’s largest cities, a score to be settled in a neutral setting – a good ‘ole fashioned western shootout at high noon. Twelve months of angst is decided in four quarters – 60 minutes for 365 days.

Thursday night is a celebration. Friday night is, too. But you had better sleep in on Friday morning, because you won’t find shut-eye again until Saturday afternoon.

I understand the reasoning behind the noon eastern kickoff, the national broadcast, yada, yada. But I’ve always wondered if the powers that be don’t simply enjoy the social experiment involved with pulling fans out of beds that we no more found our way to, only to usher us away to the most intense sporting environment known to man.

No matter, the Cotton Bowl brings out the best in us all. A river runs through it, so to speak, a boundary between territories and teams. Divided, a sea of burnt orange abruptly turns to crimson and creme; half in ecstasy, half in despair.

The passion fueling the rush of adrenaline that carries each through this day is one handed down from generation to generation. From Barry and Daryl to Bob and Mack. From grandfathers, to fathers, to sons and daughters.

OU-Texas is a rite of fall, and while each program has seen better days, nothing else matters on the second Saturday in October. There is a rank to maintain, a guard to reclaim. It’s the Red River.

Let it flow.

A patriarch’s legacy

The first of a three-part series highlighting the Scott family focuses on the Hall of Fame career of Sequoyah assistant coach Bill Scott.

By Kolby Paxton

Bill Scott couldn’t have known that he would come to lead a football legacy spanning multiple generations. Growing up in Stilwell, he’d never even seen a game.

“The first football game I ever saw, I played in,” said Scott. “We didn’t have a television. I went to a country school with 32 kids, and we didn’t play football. We played a lot of basketball. I thought I was a basketball player.”

Stilwell High football coach Francis Wheeler saw things a little differently.

“I didn’t go out for football,” said Scott. “I played basketball. But in those days, they had two coaches; one coached football and one coached basketball. One day, during study hall, coach Francis Wheeler came to me and said, ‘How come you aren’t playing football?’ I said, ‘I’m a basketball player.’ And he said, ‘You can’t play basketball if you don’t play football.’”

With that ultimatum, a legend was born.

Playing tackle and end, Scott was a star on the gridiron, eventually garnering the attention of Frank Broyles and the University of Arkansas.

“I played under a lot of great coaches, Broyles, Jim Mackenzie, Barry Switzer, Merv Johnson, Joe Gibbs was a GA, Mike Shanahan was a GA,” he said. “There were a lot of great coaches over there.”

An all-star assembly of leaders to be sure, Scott was exposed to Switzer, in particular, before he became “The King” of Sooner lore.

“Switzer was my coach on the freshman team,” said Scott. “Freshmen weren’t eligible. You had your own field. We had 77 freshmen there my year. Those were the days of unlimited scholarships. He was a graduate assistant there, then the next year he was a scout team coach, and the next he was an assistant coach. He was as good a guy as he was a coach.”

In 1964, during what would have been his senior season in Fayetteville, Ark., the Razorbacks won the school’s first and only football national title, but Scott was elsewhere.

After transferring from Arkansas, Scott was an All-American lineman at Northeastern State.

After two seasons at Arkansas, he momentarily hung up the spikes and moved home. Once the coaching staff at Northeastern State caught wind of his availability, they sent Scott’s wife, Terry, to recruit him.

“She wouldn’t know a first down from a touchdown, but that wasn’t important,” he said. “She was always there. She hasn’t missed a game since I’ve been coaching. She supported Bear, now she’s supporting Cub. She has always been there, if we won, same way if we lost. The sun’s going to come up the next day. Fortunately, we haven’t lost much.”

With a nudge from the Mis’ess, Scott became an All-American lineman for the Redmen, before joining the Los Angeles Rams in 1966-’67.

“I played on a team that had three Hall of Famers on defense, Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy,” he said. “Roman Gabriel was the quarterback, and he was bigger than I was. I weighed about 235. It was tough.”

When Scott’s playing career ended, his coaching career began, and what a career it has been.

After two seasons at Muldrow and another two as an assistant at Bristow, Scott was promoted to head coach of the Pirates.

“When I got the head job, the year before we had 28 kids out for football,” he said. “Twenty of them graduated. So we had eight juniors and seniors to start with. They asked me what I was going to do, and I said, “Well, I’m going to beg some kids to play.”

Beg he did, addressing the student body at school-wide assemblies, pushing to make football a priority. The results of his campaign were staggering.

“My first year, we had the only undefeated team in Bristow history, had 65 kids out,” said Scott. “They were oil field workers, poor, country boys, and they came together. It just became a deal where it was good to play football. Everybody likes to be a part of a successful team.”

From 1972-’93, Scott’s teams won 218 games, three state championships, two runner-up finishes, and 16 district titles. They did so by deploying innovative schemes on both sides of the football, philosophies inspired by some of the most prominent names in the profession.

“Ara Parseghian was the head coach at Notre Dame at the time,” said Scott. “I called him up one day, he had a home phone. We visited for about two hours. Then we got a video from Delaware of the Delaware Wing-T. Davey Nelson and Tubby Raymond were running it, and they were very successful there. So we just used what we learned and turned it into our own.”

In many respects, within the state, Scott helped to lead an offensive revolution of sorts. Amidst an era during which the Split-T, the I-formation, and even the Wishbone were prevalent, Scott’s Pirate squads strung together two decades of dominance with a look that remained visible up to the turn of the century – a run that led to his subsequent induction into the Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1986.

From 1987-’90, Bill coached his own son, Brent – a quarterback.

“I think we threw the ball 24 times one of those state championship years,” he said. “We ran the ball. I always believed that if you could run the ball, it made you tough. It was a tough game.”

Of course, the irony of the above statement knows no bounds, given the quarterbacking prowess of his son and grandson. Still, a lack of emphasis on the passing game never translated to the subsequent devaluing of the signal caller.

“I’ll tell you how important quarterbacks are,” said Scott. “We won the state title in ’75 and ’76. We graduated our quarterback, but had 18 starters back in ’77 and didn’t even get out of the district.”

Nearly four decades have passed since the patriarch Scott, quarterback-less, struggled on the heels of his second state championship. Today, his son, Brent Scott, has no such issues.

That’s because Brent is the head coach of a team led by the state’s top field general, his own son, Brayden.

The Memphis-commit plays and speaks like the son of a coach, walking the walk, talking the talk, and tipping the cap to those responsible for his disposition all the while.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Papa is winning,” he said. “That’s the one thing about him, he always wanted to compete at anything that he did. Dad had that, and he passed it down to me. One word that will always describe the three of us is ‘compete,’ in anything and everything that you do. Whether that’s school work, throwing a ball, that’s the word that puts us three together.”

Together, the trio has competed and won aplenty, though they aren’t finished just yet. In what likely amounts to Bill Scott’s last season wearing a whistle, the Indians are talented and readily capable of stretching this story book ending into December.

“This year is more special because its the last time that all of us will be together on the same field,” said Brayden Scott. “We don’t want it to end until the state championship. We know it’s the last year. We want to make it memorable.”

Four Quarters: Part 2 – Attitude reflects leadership

By Kolby Paxton

If you are a fan of the Cowboys, Rangers, Sooners, Razorbacks, or even the Thunder for that matter, I have a confession to make. I am to blame for your team’s recent championship short-comings.

It wasn’t Mark Lowe or Nelly Cruz. It was this guy, in his stupid, unlucky baseball cap. It wasn’t the impostor dressed as James Harden. It was the idiot pining for the right to wear Harden’s jersey. It wasn’t Landry Jo– ok, it was Landry Jones, but you get the point.

When I say it aloud, it sounds so irrational, so outwardly narcissistic. But, after much denial, many mendacity-filled attempts at more conventional rationalization, there remains one common denominator: me.

When Joe Nathan blew his third save of the season early Sunday, it didn’t shock me. Quite the opposite, actually. I readily braced for it, using the NFL as a coping mechanism. What did catch me off guard, was a bounce back performance by Nathan and the Rangers in the night-cap. Too bad my guys are getting swept in Oakland.

When the U.S. Ryder Cup team collapsed Sunday afternoon, I didn’t bat an eye. I spent all day Saturday reasoning ways that it could happen anyway. Lefty and Furyk choked? Of course they did.

I love sports, but the harsh reality that only one team can win, coupled with the fact that my teams are never that one team, has turned me into a total fan pessimist; a fansimist, if you will. I hope for the best, but fully anticipate the most gut-wrenching, floor-caving scenario.

During moments of weakness, when my imagination wanders into “What if…” land, I quickly return to a far more damning reality, deriding my own subconscious for allowing such naiveté to slip through the cracks.

I was seven years old the last time Arkansas won a national title in anything other than people running in circles. I spent half of the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl appearance pouting in my bedroom because my team was losing. Why? Because I was eight years old. That’s why. The last time the Sooners hoisted the crystal football, I was an eighth-grader wearing a Florida State hat, yet to be initiated into Sooner Nation.

3.) The bare spot on the press box

I remember watching the national championship celebration inside of Oklahoma Memorial Stadium from my grandparents house, days after Torrance Marshall and his teammates “got his boy’s trophy back.” Actually, that’s not entirely true. I remember very little about the celebration, itself. Rather, I distinctly remember watching as they dropped the sheet, revealing the year 2000, the latest addition to the running championship tally on the press box.

Four years later, they remodeled the facade of that box, leaving one, lonely, empty space for another national title. That space was supposed to be filled the very same season, by a team dubbed as “scary good,” by Sports Illustrated. All went according to plan until a muffed punt in the Orange Bowl.

Not quite a decade has passed since that now ominous vacancy was created. Thanks, in large part, to comically prodigal quarterback Landry Jones, it will remain without tenant for yet another year – and not because of a September loss to Kansas State. One early loss to a quality opponent does little to derail a title shot, even pre-playoff. No, it was how OU lost, with the same ‘ole Landry, that has effectively crushed collective optimism.

Oh, sure. Others are at fault. Josh Heupel hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with his play-calling prowess, relying heavily on the passing game in spite of a stable of seemingly capable ball carriers. The linebackers are weak this season, the defensive line as shallow as they come. Still, it begins – and, subsequently, ends – with a fifth-year senior quarterback that has actually managed to regress over the past two seasons.

Of course, on the comedy of errors that is Tulsa Sports Animal Program Director Kevin Ward’s morning show, former Oklahoma quarterback Steve Davis (1972-1976) leapt to Jones’ defense.

“All he’s done is win more games and throw for more yards than any other quarterback that has played at the University of Oklahoma,” said Davis. “And that’s 117 years of OU football.”

Correct, Steve. One hundred and seventeen years, for 13 of which the Sooners have been passing the football. Though, I realize, it isn’t so impressive sounding when you mention that little tidbit, is it? Nor is it quite as earth-rattling when you throw in the part about Sam Bradford, Jason White and Heupel each playing essentially two full seasons a piece – versus a mind numbing four full seasons for Jones. But, hey, whatevs.

“All this kid has done is work his fanny off,” said Davis. “All he’s done is do everything that’s been asked of him, and he is obviously the leader of that football team.”

Glad you brought that up, as well, Steve. The world isn’t fair. Skipping spring break to sling balls around doesn’t guarantee improvement – clearly. But, you’re right, he is the leader of this group. And you know what, Steve? Attitude reflects leadership: passive, tentative, and easily rattled.

And what was the Steve Davis-proclaimed leader of Oklahoma’s public response to yet another home conference loss?

“Everyone has bad games,” Jones said on his Facebook page. “Let’s see you go play vs. a top 15 defense and play ‘great’. Exactly. Never again.”

Well put, Landry. Nothing says dominion quite like diffident avoidance of accountability. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the winningest quarterback in program history.

4.) An open letter to prospective Sooner signal callers

Dear sir(s): Before you agree to become – or attempt to become – the next in a long line of successful Oklahoma quarterbacks, you must understand one thing above all else: The position will come with a heavy burden. That fact in no way differentiates OU from the Floridas, SC’s and Alabamas of the world, but it bears mentioning.

Oklahoma isn’t Cal. It isn’t Colorado, or Arizona State, or Maryland. Those are all fine institutions of higher learning, with solid athletic departments, and semi-respectable football programs. But losing is tolerated more readily in those places; it’s not tolerated at all in Norman.

Playing quarterback at OU will set you up for life, without ever requiring that you use the degree of which you were given. You’ll have the opportunity to sell cars, air-conditioners, buffalo wings, you name it. People will pay you for the right to simply use your voice in their ad, or plaster your face on their billboard. There is no professional football team in Oklahoma, so you will be treated with the same reverence within the state as Aaron Rodgers finds in Wisconsin. All of these things are good. But they don’t come for free.

You will be expected to win. You will be expected to show improvement over the course of your career. You will be expected to shoulder the Herculean task of upholding the gold standard at one of the nation’s winningest programs, and you will be expected to never, ever, under any circumstances, lose on Owen Field.

At OU, the only statistics that matter are wins and losses – as evidenced by the general disdain with which the now-current holder of nearly every school passing record is regarded.

Someone should have explained these terms to said record-holder before he signed his letter of intent. No one did, and we are all witness to the fallout.

Four Quarters: Part 1 – What is mediocre?

By Kolby Paxton

Blame the vacation, but I’m long winded this week. I began with the Ryder Cup choke, the impending collapse of the Texas Rangers, and even created a new word, “fansimist.” But, in the spirit of a halftime show complete with wardrobe malfunctions – and in the interest of space – you’ll have to wait until Wednesday for these things, as well as an open letter to the next quarterback at the University of Oklahoma.

1.) Spring cleaning come early

The implosion of the Razorback football program, shocking as it has become, was, in retrospect, somewhat predictable. It was foolish to think that Arkansas could compete for even a division title, let alone a national title, what with John L. Smith playing substitute teacher.

I’m conditioned to the sensation of feeling as if you can taste the rainbow, only to watch as it continually eludes its pursuer. The lofty hopes of those around me were never, at any point, echoed by yours truly. Contrarily, I attempted to construct far more conservative conjecture for my fellow man. Pessimistic? Perhaps, merely a distant relative of realistic.

When Arkansas lost to Louisiana-Monroe, I was sad for the irrelevance it cast upon a would-be grand stage the following week. But I was filled with relief in knowing, only two games into the season, that John L. Smith would, unequivocally, be relieved of his duties at season’s end. “Fire him,” you said. “Be patient,” I said. “It’s not as if they’ll be any better off under the leadership of an equally inept coordinator.”

And then, on a dreary Saturday in College Station, Texas, Smith managed to embarrass himself, his team, and an entire legion of supporters, to such an extent, that there is no way for Jeff Long to keep him aboard.

Forget all of my nonsense about patience and objectivity.

Nothing will improve with either of the Pauls calling the shots – their units have each been utterly atrocious – but it matters not. Arkansas’ on-field performance has been nearly as humiliating as watching a black and blue weasel of a head coach, equipped with matching neck brace, voluntarily lie directly into the camera, hours after seeing the police report that would dispute his claims.

How is that even possible?

2.) What exactly constitutes mediocrity?

Sports radio options aren’t exactly what you’d call plentiful in this part of the country. Drivers in Cherokee County who would prefer to listen to men (and Kelly Hines) talk about sports during their commute, are essentially relegated to 97.1 The Sports Animal – which is not to be confused with 98.1 The Sports Animal.

Each day that I ramble home for lunch, I am presented with former Oklahoma State football coach Pat Jones for my listening pleasure.

I respect Coach Jones, if only because he’s a coach and I’m a jock. By in large, however, he is surrounded by yes-men on “The Afternoon Sports Beat,” both in the form of host Al Jerkens, and the vast majority of the show’s callers.

Much to my chagrin, I must now count myself among them.

As I was driving home Friday, a caller phoned in to ask Coach Jones’ opinion of the Arkansas coaching search. The caller was not a moron. After initially drawing the approving sympathy groans with regard to the program, itself, the gentleman asked Jones if he was concerned that Razorback football might slip back to mediocrity.

Much to my surprise – and I’m sure the surprise of the caller, and even Jerkens – Jones flipped his lid, apoplectic at the use of the term “mediocre.” He cut the question short, spewed a few marginally coherent remarks about Arkansas playing for conference titles in the past, and ended the one-sided conversation.

I’ve never called into a radio show before. In general, I can’t stand those that do. The questions are always haphazardly prepared. The purpose of their call is always so apparently redundant and/or insignificant. Tell me, if Jim Traber calls you an idiot, are you more or less intelligent than if he would have commended you with a good old fashioned, “You’re right on the money, brother.”

I would argue the latter, but I digress.

On this day, I had a question worth asking. A simple question: “Coach, what is your definition of mediocre?” I risked my life for this jab, pulling up the phone number on my iPhone, no-look passing traffic like I was Lebron James. Finally, I found the number. I called. Shawn Tiemann answered, asked who I was, and put me on deck. Suddenly, however, I realized my plight. I was about to argue statistics without statistical ammunition.

“Arkansas football records,” I typed frantically into the Google search bar. Wikipedia. Got it. Scrolling, scrolling, scro– “Kolby, would you play him?” asked Coach Jones through my radio. It was too late. I was up.

“Yeah, coach, I’d play him,” I responded, assuming we were talking about Wes Lunt. We were, but I wouldn’t have actually played him, if you must know. I don’t even know what’s wrong with him anymore. Is it his knee? Is it some secret injury as Jones, himself suggests? I just didn’t care enough to disagree.

At this point, I figured I had two choices, I could fire a sausage ball of sarcasm and wait for the “click,” on the other end of the line, or I could ease into it with some respect. Despite the fact that Jones was sitting in the dunk tank, and I with a fist full of softball, it felt wrong to behave with such outward impudence toward a man my grandfather’s age.

So, instead, I… thanked him? It’s true. I attempted to qualify the impending verbal undressing with respect and gratitude. But it came out, “I appreciate you jumping to the defense of the program,” after which point, I lost missile lock, and faded into a cordial conversation about future coaching candidates.

I failed miserably to make my point and, in doing so, levied an injustice upon Coach Jones by allowing him to bask in the same pool of nonsense that Jerkens splashes around in.

So, coach, if you’re reading this, here is what I called to say:

Mediocre is an adjective meaning, “Of only moderate quality.” There is, in fact, no more appropriate adjective to describe the Arkansas football program since the departure of Ken Hatfield, post-1989.

Jack Crowe, Joe Kines, Danny Ford and Houston Nutt rattled off a nearly 20-year run of .533 football.

Houston Nutt managed a winning record vs. SEC opponents three times in 10 seasons. His winning percentage vs. the SEC as the Arkansas head coach was .525.

Petrino, in the aftermath of Nutt’s final soap opera of a season, managed a .666 winning percentage in four seasons in Fayetteville, including a 21-5 record over the past two seasons.

The previous caller’s question was a fair and accurate one. My call, however, the one that didn’t get cut short, was a complete waste of air time. For that, I apologize.